Auburn is back in the postseason for the 1st time since 2021 as it will face Maryland in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.

Hugh Freeze took the reins of the Tigers program ahead of the 2023 season and led them to a 6-6 record, including a heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl. After finishing 5-7 in 2022, they’re in a bowl once more and will face the Terrapins, the Music City Bowl’s B1G rep, in Nashville.

Freeze still has a lot of work to do at Auburn, especially after Bryan Harsin went 9-12 overall and didn’t even last through his 2nd season. Making the bowl is the bare minimum expectation for a program that has largely lived in the shadows of its rival. But the Tigers will look to end 2023 on a high note and hopefully position themselves for the next step during what will be a pivotal 2024 for the SEC.

These 2 teams have met just 3 times before: in 1952, Maryland won 13-7 in Birmingham before Auburn won 20-7 6 years later. Auburn beat Maryland 35-23 in the next meeting, which didn’t happen until 1983.

Now, 40 years later, the Tigers and Terrapins meet again. Here’s a look at the matchup:

It’s Auburn’s 3rd time in the Music City Bowl

While it’s Maryland’s 1st time in the Music City Bowl, Auburn’s familiar with this game as it’s played in it twice before.

On Dec. 31, 2003, the Tigers beat Wisconsin 28-14. Jason Campbell was named the game’s MVP after going 10-of-22 for 138 yards and carrying the ball 9 times for 67 yards.

Fifteen years later, the Tigers dismantled Purdue 63-14 as Jarrett Stidham threw for 373 yards and 5 touchdowns, 3 of them to Darius Slayton. Boobee Whitlow accounted for 3 TDs of his own, 2 on the ground and 1 through the air.

The Tigers have had some good memories at Nissan Stadium, and in late December, they’ll hope to make it 3-0 at the venue.

Maryland’s quarterback has a familiar last name

The name “Tagovailoa” is already etched among Alabama’s legendary players. But Tua’s younger brother, Taulia, will leave the Maryland program as the most prolific quarterback in program history.

Taulia Tagovailoa holds every major passing record for the Terrapins: most passing yards in a career (11,256) and in a single season (3,860), and most career passing touchdowns (76). His 419 yards against Indiana in 2019 is the 3rd-most all time in school history.

He played in 5 games with Alabama in 2019 — Tua’s final year with the program — before transferring to Maryland. In 2023, he has 3,377 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.

In an NFL Draft that will include Bo Nix, Caleb Williams, and Jayden Daniels, Tagovailoa probably won’t be top of mind, but that doesn’t mean he won’t end up on an NFL roster when it’s all said and done.

Maryland has a pair of talented wide receivers on its roster

Tagovailoa’s favorite targets in 2023 have been a pair of All-B1G Third-Team selections: Jeshaun Jones, a 6th-year player, and junior Tai Felton.

Jones leads the way with 58 catches and 747 yards with 4 touchdowns. Felton has a team-high 6 touchdowns with 723 yards on 48 catches.

The Auburn secondary, ranked 4th in the SEC and 29th in FBS in passing defense  will have their hands full trying to keep both of those players in check.

Maryland could just as easily could be 10-2

Maryland had 2 losses on its schedule where it was absolutely throttled: Against Penn State (51-15) and Ohio State (31-17). Both of those teams will be playing in New Year’s 6 bowls — and for good reason.

There have been some close losses, too. The Terps made for a pesky opponent for Michigan: the Wolverines opened up a 16-3 lead that was 29-24 after 3 quarters before they eventually won 31-24. Against Northwestern, they fell 33-27, a week after dropping a 27-24 decision to Illinois on a last-second Illini field goal.

Needless to say, the Terps can’t be taken lightly by the Tigers in this one.

How will the Tigers respond?

There’s no understating how disappointing Auburn’s Iron Bowl loss to Alabama was. Isaiah Bond has probably been living in the nightmares of the Auburn secondary for days, and as it turned out, Alabama is in the College Football Playoff.

Auburn didn’t do itself any favors, though. Its quarterback play, which has been a massive question mark all season long, it gathered just 93 yards through the air on 17 attempts against Alabama. It turned the ball over 3 times. On 3rd downs, it was 4-of-12.

The good news: its run game broke off some big plays, eventually totaling over 240 yards. The Tigers actually had a Top 20 rushing offense in 2023; Maryland has allowed 129.6 yards per game this season. Perhaps that’s the receipe for Auburn to leaving Nashville with a win.

All told, the emotions from Nov. 25 need to be left in the rearview mirror. The Tigers made baby steps under Freeze in his 1st season and, as mentioned, he still has plenty of work to do. A win against Maryland on Saturday will be yet another step in the right direction and can serve as a base to build on for 2024.